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Second Homes Are Killing the Berkshires

Arthur Dellea is a freelance PC expert who enjoys adventures with his wife and children, playing drums at church, and investigative writing.

Luxury home

Luxury home

Second Homes Are Killing the Berkshires

The Berkshires are filled with charming towns and rolling hills that turn crimson and gold in the fall, and they are abundant in art, dance, theater, and music. Despite an increase in the number of visitors and second homeowners, many multi-generational residents now struggle more than they did in the past to make ends meet.

Even though the county's year-round population decreased overall and the proportion of seasonal property owners increased by about 19 percent, the number of individuals living in poverty in Berkshire County increased by almost a third between 2000 and 2015.

There are two worlds: that of the Berkshires' tremendous resources and that of the people who provide for them. And this disparity continues to widen, just as those in other tourist hotspots. In 2018, visitors to the Berkshires spent $529.7 million at regional businesses, generating about $27.3 million in tax revenue for the state and an additional $15.2 million for local services in Berkshire municipalities.

More than 40% of respondents under the age of 46 who were surveyed stated they were considering moving in the next three years because there are many part-time jobs, but few career opportunities.

Abandoned farmhouse

Abandoned farmhouse

No Homes for Locals

Many long-term inhabitants of Berkshire County have a huge income difference from second homeowners, which has caused a significant increase in home prices and frequently makes it hard for long-term residents to remain in their homes and live in their towns.

Because developing new projects often requires expensive land and hefty expenses, developers prioritize higher-end second homeowners in order to maximize their return on investment. Although the land and construction expenses do not support affordable development, residents would be less opposed to residential building directed at other local residents.

Construction for upper-end second homeowners is thought to be more lucrative and less dangerous, and the shortage of skilled carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and craftsmen limits the availability of reasonably-priced, locally-based contractors.

Power plant in ruins

Power plant in ruins

Huge Financial Divide

Locals are beginning to feel less like they belong in the Berkshires as more wealthy visitors and vacation homeowners move here. The average wage in the Berkshires has not even kept up with the average wage in the rest of Massachusetts or even with housing expenditures.

Due in part to a high emphasis on service jobs, Berkshire county also has a smaller percentage of full-time workers and a higher percentage of part-time workers than the state and national norms. The median household income in Berkshire County is just under $50,000, which is much less than the state norm of nearly $70,000. In contrast, the average income is $100,000 for tourists to the Berkshires.

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Once heavily involved in manufacturing, the Berkshires lost more than 20,000 middle-class jobs during the 1970s and 1990s as a result of General Electric downsizing and Sprague Electric closing. In recent years, a number of paper mills and some home furnishings businesses have also closed their doors.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, locals already faced a number of socioeconomic issues, including generational poverty, the opioid crisis, and nearly two generations of unemployed individuals. Now the affordability gap between housing options in our rural communities and what a low income household can afford is growing even faster.

Old barn

Old barn

Community and Environmental Impacts

Low density residential construction and new home square footage have both increased in the Berkshires. These changes have produced a wide range of issues, which the current zoning ordinances have insufficiently handled.

An increase in larger second houses that will boost property values and make land less accessible for aging populations, an increasingly impoverished middle class, and an already vulnerable farming community is a challenge to the multi-generational community structure of the Berkshires.

Large homes have a variety of negative effects on the environment, such as increased storm-water runoff, tree clearance, and loss of habitat for significant species. Low density developments split farms, obliterate valuable soils, and render farming for farmers economically unviable, endangering agricultural techniques as well.

Larger-scale developments on a national and international scale, such as global warming, the biodiversity crisis, the dwindling availability of local foods, and unsustainable and unhealthy farming, are all influenced by these issues.

Clearing land

Clearing land

How to Balance Land Development and Preservation

Contrary to the widespread belief that land preservation and growth are fundamentally incompatible, using smarter development methods can increase the number of residences while safeguarding natural resources:

  • Towns should be very deliberate about which land to protect and use profitably because certain land parcels are more suited for agriculture or forestry than others.
  • Farmers might gain easier access to residential land by enticing homeowners to lease their property and by carefully choosing the type of agricultural they engage in.
  • By mandating that a specific portion of the land be left in its natural state or transformed into a pollinator meadow during development, plots can be made more environmentally friendly.
  • By encouraging people to be engaged citizens—making people feel like more active and valued members of the community—towns can provide financial incentives and social benefits to promote farmers.
  • Zoning regulations can be changed to promote smaller homes with smarter placement for a better use of open space. In a similar manner, multifamily housing complexes raise the population density while putting less stress on the earth's resources.
  • Environmental bylaws can both prevent harmful development and lessen the effects of residential development. For example, they can strengthen the local Wetlands Protection Act and the Scenic Mountain Act, safeguard trees and other resources, restrict impervious surfaces and lawns, and promote more environmentally friendly land uses.
  • To make sure that new development complies with these new bylaws, design-review procedures might be implemented. Economic incentives and disincentives can be used to discourage the building of ecologically harmful constructions and promote wiser and more environmentally conscientious land use.
  • Local developers can stimulate the development of more environmentally efficient homes, making them valuable allies for local planning boards. They can benefit from these new projects by receiving density bonuses if the appropriate open space residential design ordinances are in place.
  • The Berkshires' economy and social structure heavily depends on farmland, so town planning boards should give conservation top priority when updating their master plans. One possible solution is to set up a program that connects interested citizens with farmers wishing to lease land.
  • By storing carbon, minimizing the effects of more frequent storms, and establishing local food systems, working landscapes and conserved ecosystems will play a crucial role in boosting resilience against climate change.
  • Create incentives to attract eco-friendly manufacturing and more non-tourist-centric businesses that will create higher-paying career opportunities, allowing more skilled workers to live and support families in local communities.
  • Investigate the effects of adding a property tax surcharge for second houses or a transfer tax for extremely expensive home sales, with all proceeds going to regional initiatives for low and middle-class housing. Look for alternative financing options that communities might use to aid in the construction and renovation of homes.

If towns throughout Berkshire County implemented said changes, their efforts would mend broken communities and protect what is left of the beautiful environment, making the Berkshires a place where local industries, farmers and multi-generational families can thrive once again.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Arthur Dellea

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